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Iron Facts

Iron in the Body

Iron is present in every cell in the body, though most is found in hemoglobin and myoglobin. Hemoglobin in red blood cells carries oxygen from the lungs to tissues throughout the body. Myoglobin carries and stores oxygen for the muscles. Iron is also essential in making new cells, amino acids, hormones and neurotransmitters.

The body holds onto and recycles iron; most iron losses occur from bleeding. If iron is not adequate in the diet, iron-deficiency can occur which typically causes tiredness, apathy and a tendency to feel cold.

photo of lentils and beans

How Much Iron do I Need?

Women (ages 19-50) 18 mg per day
Pregnant Women 27 mg per day
Men (ages 19 and older) 8 mg per day

Because of the lower bioavailability of iron from plant foods, women 19-50 consuming a vegetarian diet may need up to 33 mg of iron per day.

Endurance athletes may need more iron. Ask your health care provider if you have any concerns.

Optimizing Iron Intake

  1. Choose lean meats, fish and poultry - the iron in these foods is absorbed better than the iron in plant sources.
  2. Eat vegetables and grains with lean meat - the average absorption of iron from plant sources is low, but increases when these are eaten with meat, poultry and fish.
  3. Eat iron-rich legumes - dried beans and peas are the most iron-rich plant products in our diets.
  4. Combine iron-rich foods with foods high in vitamin C - a glass of orange juice with your breakfast can more than double the amount of iron your body absorbs.
  5. Avoid drinking tea or coffee with your meals - a cup of tea with breakfast can block 3/4 of the iron you would have absorbed.
  6. Cook foods in an iron pot whenever practical - spaghetti sauce simmered in an iron pot for about 20 minutes increases its iron content nine fold. This would work as well for other acidic foods.
  7. Eat iron-fortified foods - iron-fortified or enriched breakfast cereals and other foods can help boost your iron intake. Be sure to combine them with high vitamin C foods like citrus fruit, broccoli, cantaloupe, strawberries or kiwi to increase absorption.

Iron in Low-Fat Foods

Clams 3 oz. 14.00
Oysters 3 oz. 6.60
Shrimp 3 oz. 2.50
Tuna 3 oz. 1.30
Chicken (breast roasted) 3 oz. 1.00
Duck (flesh only, roasted) 3 oz. 2.00
Sirloin (lean, broiled) 3 oz. 2.00
Turkey (breast, roasted) 3 oz. 1.20
Turkey (drumstick) 3 oz. 2.00
Lentils (cooked) 1/2 cup 3.30
Lima beans (cooked) 1/2 cup 2.25
Dried beans (cooked) 1/2 cup 2.30
Split Peas (cooked) 1/2 cup 1.25
Tofu (raw) 1/2 cup 6.65
Cream of Wheat (reg, cooked) 1/2 cup 6.00
Fortified breakfast cereal (Total, e.g.) 1/2 cup 18.00
Pasta (cooked) 1/2 cup 1.00
Wheat germ, toasted 2 Tbsp. 1.30
Apricots (dried) 1/4 cup 1.50
Broccoli (cooked) 1/2 cup 0.6
Brussels Sprouts (cooked) 1/2 cup 1.00
Peaches (dried) 1/4 cup 1.60
Peas (cooked) 1/2 cup 1.26
Potato (cooked, with skin) 1 medium 2.35
Prunes 1/4 cup 1.00
Raisins 1/4 cup 1.00
Spinach (raw) 1 cup 1.00
Spinach (boiled) 1/2 cup 2.00
Squash (winter, acorn, cooked) 1 cup 1.37

High Iron Menus

1 cup Cheerios (6 mg iron)
1 cup 1% milk
1 slice whole wheat toast
1-2 tsp soft spread margarine
1 cup orange juice
1 scrambled egg with 1 extra egg white
2 slices whole wheat toast
1-2 tsp soft spread margarine
1 cup skim milk
½ grapefruit
1 6” whole wheat pita bread (2 mg iron)
½ cup hummus (3 mg iron)
fresh lettuce and tomato
1 cup watermelon
1 cup 1% milk or yogurt
Wendy's single hamburger (4.0 mg iron)
Wendy's Garden Side Salad with reduced
fat dressing
Wendy's small French fries
4 oz roasted chicken breast
1 medium baked potato with skin (2.3 mg iron)
2-3 tsp soft spread margarine
1 cup cooked broccoli
1 cup tossed salad with light dressing
1 cup spaghetti noodles
½ cup marinara sauce (2 mg iron)
1 cup cooked spinach (4 mg iron)
2 pieces French bread with
1-2 tsp soft spread margarine
1 apple
1 Health Valley raisin granola bar (3.5 mg iron) 1 cup skim milk
1 Archway soft molasses cookie (2.7 mg iron)
(1600 calories, 22.5 mg iron) (1950 calories, 20 mg iron)

Reducing Gas

Dried beans and peas are an excellent source of iron, fiber and other nutrients, but many people avoid these foods because of flatulence (gas). There are ways to prepare beans to reduce flatulence and gas is less of a problem for those who regularly eat beans.

  • Change the soaking water two or three times and rinse the beans thoroughly after they've soaked.
  • After soaking, cook beans in fresh water.
  • Cook beans thoroughly—they should be soft.
  • When using canned beans, rinse well before using.
  • Activated charcoal capsules can be taken after the fact. There is also a commercial enzyme product (Beano) that breaks down the complex sugars that cause gas.

For more information on Nutrition Education services, please contact the Health Promotion Department at the University Health Center at 706-542-8690.